During the uprising following Michael Brown’s death in August of 2014, a St. Louis County police officer went up to Craig Atkinson, the filmmaker behind Do Not Resist, a documentary on the militarization of America’s police forces, and asked him a question: “Do you want a real story?”
Atkinson was brought to a house just outside Ferguson, Missouri, and handed a stack of about 300 arrest reports from a nearby shopping center. All of the people arrested over a three-month period were black, Atkinson said, and all by three officers. The filmmaker asked his father—who was a police officer for 29 years outside Detroit—whether or not it was normal to arrest so many people over such a short period of time. “It was like 400% of what would be reasonable for an officer to do,” Atkinson told Fusion.
The cop told Atkinson officers had been told by their superiors to “make the jail dark.”
Atkinson’s film, Do Not Resist, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last week and won the festival’s award for best documentary feature. The film is a brutal look into the makings of America’s police forces on steroids. Through interviews, ride-alongs with police officers, and footage of government hearings, Do Not Resist captures how the discriminatory distribution of military equipment to local police forces targets people of color and poor people.
The film frames the militarization of police forces across America as a direct response to the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has given police departments $34 billion to purchase military equipment. And the Department of Defense has contributed $5 billion in free military equipment to law enforcement since 1997. “When you put $40 billion into an industry, you’re going to get results,” Atkinson said. “And we happen to put that money into equipment, and so of course the focus is going to shift to using the equipment,” the filmmaker continued.
Texas alone has at least 70 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs. According to NPR, these military-grade vehicles are designed to withstand bullets, grenades, and roadside bombs. Between 2006 and 2014 law enforcement agencies were also gifted assault rifles, grenade launchers, combat knives, and bomb detonator robots. In a 2014 Senate hearing, following the unrest in Ferguson, several lawmakers questioned the need for this kind of equipment. Atkinson said there is a stipulation in grants given out by Homeland Security that the equipment not to be used for riot control.
During an interview with a law enforcement agent who trains SWAT teams in South Carolina, the officer told Atkinson that 40% of his team are former service members, and they “do a lot of training for the type of situation they had in Missouri.” The military equipment, he said, is used for “any unruly crowds we would have to deal with, or civil disturbance.”
But Atkinson says the equipment is used instead for routine drug busts. “[The police] all think they’re preparing for terrorism,” Atkinson said. “But the day-to-day reality is that they’re using it for drug search warrants,” he said. “Many of the departments are using the seized assets as supplemental income for their operating budgets.”
The impact of military-style drugs busts on poor black communities is staggering. Though the film begins during the uprising in Ferguson, the viewer is taken all around the country to see the impact of police militarization.
One such incident featured in Do Not Resist takes place in South Carolina, where a SWAT team shows up to a family’s home in a sprinter van and bash their windows and door in. Family members are removed from the home and placed in handcuffs, their lives uprooted. After the SWAT team clears the house, there is an image of a young black baby sitting on her mother’s lap looking around at the scene, confused. The mother bounces the baby to soothe her. A young black man is whisked away for possession—at the bottom of his backpack police recovered a gram and a half of marijuana. The police seized almost $1,000 from the young man, who was planning to use the money to purchase a lawnmower to start a business. The next day, during an interview with Atkinson, the young man’s mother says incredulously, “Y’all looking for a terrorist? You think there’s a terrorist in here? That’s the kind of feeling I had.”
Rhetoric is a powerful tool in the militarization of law enforcement agents. And Atkinson points to a man named Dave Grossman as its leader. Grossman’s books are required reading at the FBI and police forces all around the country. Grossman travels 300 days a year giving talks, Atkinson told me. “Violence is your tool, violence is your enemy,” Grossman said in a lecture to law enforcement agents captured by Atkinson. “Violence is the realm we operate in,” he continued. “You are men and women of violence. You must master it or it will destroy you.”
“That was probably the most shocking moment of the entire production,” Atkinson says of the Grossman lecture. “Because a lot of it started to make sense to me.” But, Atkinson says, “it’s not appropriate to fight violence with violence. You’re not supposed to think of yourself as a predator.”
“I honestly don’t feel like they would let a black person make this film,” Atkinson, who is white, told Fusion. But as the son of a cop, Atkinson doesn’t get intimidated. “Democrats love it, libertarians love it, conservatives love it,” he said of the film. “They all find something to grab on to. Which means that there is starting to be a unifying force of dissent in this country. And I think that any election that has left both sides dissatisfied is usually writing on the wall for some significant change.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.